On 15 February we organised a workshop on ‘Sexuality in Popular Culture’ at the School of Advanced Study in London. To us, this felt like a particularly topical and urgent point for discussion. Today, equal rights campaigns and queer communities across the world are experiencing unprecedented advances, and yet shockwaves from violence, war and political upheavals can be felt across the geographical and political spectrum both within and outside the queer community. Popular culture and media play an essential role in defining attitudes to gender and sexuality, but can also challenge assumptions and conventions. Our afternoon of workshops aimed to take a closer look at how sexuality is mediated through various forms of popular culture, including music, film and graphic narrative.
I kicked off with a workshop on the representation of LGBT people in popular film and TV. Today, sexual and gender diversity features on popular TV and film much more than even a decade ago. As someone who researches the history of sexuality, I am particularly interested in films and TV shows that explore the long history of gender and sexual diversity. I showed film clips from two contemporary examples, the film The Danish Girl (2015) and the TV series Transparent (2014-present). I was particularly excited to discuss these alongside a much older film called Anders als die Andern (Different from the Others), a German silent film from 1919, one of the first gay rights films ever to be made. Film offers such a rich medium to explore that the discussion immediately got off the ground. Participants were interested to see that science is often represented as a form of authority that can validate gender and sexual identity. It was great to be able to see the similarities between the contemporary and historical material, released almost 100 years apart!
I’ve been listening to Hamilton for months and it’s struck me: popular music can be a powerful way of redefining ourselves, our identities and histories. My workshop explored this from a queer perspective. We discussed ‘queer icons’ and how certain tracks or songs define our identities. The themes of confidence and performance kept coming up, but also the outsider perspective that so many queer icons present in their music. We asked how queer icons unsettle more mainstream ideas of gay icons, and how this translates into musical form? For some of us, it was four-on-the-floor beats and glossy electronic pop; for others, the defiant, grungy guitar sounds of punk; and to my delight, Hamilton’s playful fusion of rap, hip-hop and Broadway came up too! It’s sparked a project for me on identities in the contemporary German techno scene, so watch this space!
The great thing about the Sexuality in Popular Culture event was being able to talk about comics. I mean, who in their right mind doesn’t think comics can change the world, or at least how we look at it? I enjoyed the chance to get delegates to draw a comic strip of themselves in ways that would challenge popular (and often stereotyped) notions of who they are. Some people framed (no pun intended) their sexuality in the context of ethnicity, race, spirituality, beliefs about the larger world in which they live, and also in terms of the increasingly conservative politics that threaten our basic freedoms. There was a lot of creativity in the drawings that I saw from the delegates, which made me smile and has given me plenty of new trope-busting ideas!
We ended the afternoon with drinks to the strains of our playlist from Tom’s event, drawing our own comics under Monalesia’s expert guidance. It was great to welcome so many undergraduates, postgraduates and researchers to Senate House for the event, and even better that we ended up chatting, debating and discussing each other’s views. Lectures and seminars are all very well, but we all found this sort of collaborative exchange of ideas much more productive for our work (and fantastic fun into the bargain!). Thanks to the IMLR and the SAS for their support, and here’s hoping we can bring more pop culture events to Senate House in the near future! For now, though, how about checking out our playlist from the event.
Ina Linge (Cambridge) @DrInaLinge
Tom Smith (Newcastle) – @TomSmithGerman
Monalesia Earle (London)